The artichoke is a 3,000-year-old detox secret, highly prized over the centuries for its potent medicinal properties.
So highly did the Ancient Greeks and Romans value this rare, edible blossom that it was known as ‘food for the Greek Gods’ and reserved for the aristocratic alone.
In the Middle Ages, this exotic food was considered a treasure that was available only to royalty.
Modern research confirms just how right ancient healers were about the medicinal powers of this thorny, armoured vegetable with the sweet, sensual heart that today we call the artichoke.
Greek Mythology - The First Artichoke
According to Greek mythology, the first artichoke was actually a beautiful, young mortal woman named Cynara who lived on the Aegean island of Zinari.
One day the King of Gods, Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon, the God of the Sea, when he laid eyes on the very beautiful Cynara as she was bathing on the island shores.
Upon noticing that Cyana was strong, confident and unaffected by his presence, Zeus instantly fell in love with her.
Zeus wanted to meet with Cynara whenever his wife, Hera, was away, so he decided to make her a goddess so that she could be closer to his home on Mount Olympus.
However, Cynara became homesick, so she would occasionally sneak back to briefly visit the mortal world and her family that she so greatly missed.
Upon discovering this un-goddess behaviour, Zeus hurled Cynara back to earth in a fit of jealous rage, however not before he transformed her into the first unusual yet striking artichoke plant, which boasts one of the most stunningly beautiful flowers to grace earthen fields.
The artichoke – the botanical name of which is Cynara - is covered in thorns to protect its vulnerable heart. When flowering, the artichoke plant produces an exquisite spiky, purple blossom - a spectacular flower that fittingly matches the goddess’ beauty.
Although ancient artichokes were very pretty and the flowers very striking, in his jealousy, Zeus hoped that their thorny exterior meant that no one would attempt to search beyond the tough, fibrous, spiky leaves to find Cynara’s sweet, sumptuous heart.
Thus, the artichoke remained untouched and undiscovered for hundreds of years.
However, overcome by curiosity and hunger, humans eventually dared to explore the thorny, armoured vegetable, upon which they discovered its protected edible heart and leaves and were thereby rewarded with its delicious flavour.
History of the Artichoke
The artichoke plant originated in the Mediterranean and has been used for over 3,000 years for its potent medicinal properties.
Artichokes were regarded as a vegetable for the elite, and due to the story of the desirous god Zeus and the sensual, beautiful Cynara, artichokes were also considered an aphrodisiac.
In Ancient Greece, the artichoke was attributed to securing the birth of boys.
One of the oldest cultivated vegetables, they were used as a digestive aid by the wealthy who used it to help with liver function after excessive eating and drinking.
Around 371-287 B.C. Greek philosopher and naturalist, Theophrastus wrote of artichokes being grown in Italy and Sicily.
In the 1st century A.D., around the time of Christ, Greek physician of Anazarbus, Cilicia, Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.), also wrote about artichokes. While travelling as a surgeon with the Roman army of Emperor Nero, Dioscorides collected information on the remedies of the period, composing his works in ‘The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides’.
Originally written in Greek, Dioscorides’ Herbal was later translated into Latin as De Materia Medica and remained the authority on medicinal plants for over 1,500 years.
Over the centuries, the artichoke became a favourite enjoyed in all European countries, the Middle East, Turkey and Lebanon.
Medicinal Properties of the Modern Day Artichoke
Although every part of Greece knows artichokes, such as the thorny, fuschia, wild artichokes that are abundant on Ikaria, Crete and the Peloponnese are the two areas where commercial cultivation is most important.
Grown commercially mainly for the purpose of domestic consumption, there are several varieties of artichokes, from the common globe artichoke to the big purple “Iodine of Attica” variety.
Artichokes are one of the most healthy vegetables one can eat, a superfood to rival even the reddest of berries.
Artichokes have a greater concentration of antioxidants than berries, providing a plentiful source of dietary fibre and vitamin K to make them amongst the best foods to help ward off cognitive decline.
Rich in vitamin C, artichokes also help boost the immune system and the leaves are thought to be an answer to controlling high cholesterol.
The alleged health benefits of the artichoke include lower blood sugar levels and improved digestion, heart health, and liver health.
Artichoke extract, which contains high concentrations of compounds found in the plant, is also increasingly popular as a supplement.
Here are the top 8 health benefits of artichokes and artichoke extract:
Artichokes are packed with powerful nutrients
Artichokes are low in fat, high in fibre, and loaded with vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin K, folate, phosphorus, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and iron. They also rank among the most antioxidant-rich of all vegetables.
Positive effects on cholesterol
Artichoke has been found to reduce total and “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. Artichoke extract affects cholesterol in two primary ways:
Firstly, artichokes contain luteolin, an antioxidant that prevents cholesterol formation.
Secondly, artichoke leaf extract encourages your body to process cholesterol more efficiently, leading to lower overall levels.
Helps to Regulate Blood Pressure
Artichoke extract may aid people with high blood pressure.
One study in 98 men with high blood pressure found that consuming artichoke extract daily for 12 weeks reduced diastolic and systolic blood pressure by an average of 2.76 and 2.85 mmHg, respectively. In addition, clinical studies indicate that artichoke extract promotes the enzyme eNOS, which plays a role in widening blood vessels.
In addition, artichokes are a good source of potassium which helps regulate blood pressure.
Improves Liver Health
Regular consumption of artichoke extract may help protect your liver from damage, help to relieve symptoms of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and promote the growth of new tissue.
It also increases the production of bile, which helps remove harmful toxins from your liver.
Studies in humans show positive effects on liver health. For example, one trial in 90 people with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease revealed that consuming 600 mg of artichoke extract daily for two months led to improved liver function.
In another study in obese adults with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, taking artichoke extract daily for two months resulted in reduced liver inflammation and less fat deposition than not consuming artichoke extract.
Scientists think that certain antioxidants found in artichokes — cynarin and silymarin — are partly responsible for these benefits and believe that more research relating to the use of artichokes to treat liver diseases is warranted.
May Improve Digestive Health
Artichoke leaf extract may maintain digestive health by boosting friendly gut bacteria and alleviating symptoms of indigestion.
Artichokes are a great source of fibre, which can help keep your digestive system healthy by promoting friendly gut bacteria, reducing your risk of certain bowel cancers, and alleviating constipation and diarrhoea.
Artichoke extract may also provide relief from symptoms of indigestion, such as bloating, nausea, and heartburn.
Cynarin, a naturally occurring compound in artichokes, may cause these positive effects by stimulating bile production, accelerating gut movement, and improving the digestion of certain fats.
Ease Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Artichoke leaf extract may help treat IBS symptoms by reducing muscle spasms, balancing gut bacteria, and reduce inflammation. This is because certain compounds in artichokes have antispasmodic properties, meaning that artichokes can help stop muscle spasms common in IBS, balance gut bacteria and reduce inflammation.
Lower Blood Sugar
Evidence has shown that artichokes and artichoke leaf extract may help lower blood sugar levels.
Artichoke extract has been shown to slow down the activity of alpha-glucosidase, an enzyme that breaks down starch into glucose, potentially impacting blood sugar.
May Have Anticancer Effects
Animal and test-tube studies note that artichoke extract may fight the growth of cancer.
Certain antioxidants — including rutin, quercetin, silymarin, and gallic acid — in artichokes are thought responsible for these anticancer effects. Silymarin has been found to help prevent and treat skin cancer in both animal and test-tube studies.
Despite these promising results, no human studies exist, so more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn.
Highly prized since ancient times, artichokes are an extremely nutritious, low-carb food that provide numerous health benefits.
The artichoke abounds in the culinary imagination of Greeks from all over the country, so it is very easy to incorporate this healthy vegetable into your Mediterranean diet.